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The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard: Tainted love

Cover imageBack in 2012 Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel was longlisted for what was then the Orange Prize. In case you’re wondering Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles won it that year. I remember enjoying Stothard’s novel very much. It may have been the jacket with its powder blue, low slung car parked outside a pastel desert hotel that first attracted me but the story of a young girl who travels to her estranged mother’s funeral hoping to find out more about her was nicely turned out and engrossing with it. The same could be said of The Museum of Cathy with its compulsive tale of obsession and memory, although I’m not entirely sure about that jacket.

Cathy is thrown off-kilter when a swallow flies into her office at the Berlin Natural History Museum. It’s not that she’s afraid of birds but despite her training as a scientist it’s her mother’s superstition that a trapped bird is a bad omen which springs to mind. She’s watched with amusement by her fiancé Tom. It’s a big day for both of them. The museum is celebrating its 150th birthday with a dinner for the great and good at which Cathy is to receive an award. These two have been together for five years. Tom is a straightforward kind of guy to whom Cathy is an enigma, barely acknowledging her troubled childhood, body covered in scars and mind full of erudition. Later in the day Cathy unwraps a package, chilled by what she finds inside – no name or note, just a kissing beetle perfectly caught in amber. She knows it’s from Daniel, the man she fled five years ago just before he was jailed thanks to her tip-off. She and Daniel are bound by something which he calls love but she does not, sharing a past fraught with tragedy and guilt. Over the course of one hot Berlin day, Stothard’s novel unravels Cathy’s story beginning with her Essex childhood.

Flitting back and forth between Berlin and Essex, The Museum of Cathy unfolds in a series of flashbacks woven through the increasingly dramatic events in Berlin. Stothard perceptively explores the complexity of desire, guilt and obsession through Cathy’s tortured relationship with Daniel. Her language is simple yet striking: ‘She felt dirty all the time and as if there was no release from the trouble in her head’ summons up Cathy’s guilt and grief; ‘He’d seen Cathy’s face in the white light as he ruined the man’s shins and jaws’ conveys Daniel’s uncontrollable rage and its focus. The novel’s drama plays out against a backdrop of gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, from Cathy’s fearless childhood explorations of the Essex coastline to the contents of the Berlin museum. Throughout it all runs a taut thread of tension. It’s a short, sharp novel, quickly swallowed up in an afternoon, which takes its readers – perhaps a little too neatly – full circle. Very different from The Pink Hotel but I enjoyed it enormously.